Hilltops Council has unanimously voted against the introduction of a Special Rate Variation (SRV).
The SRV had been proposed as a way of addressing the financial sustainability of Council, however, there was strong community backlash against its introduction.
Feedback from the community through the SRV consultation period was carefully weighed up by councillors prior to making their decision at Council's November meeting.
Speakers in open forum at the meeting also made strong arguments against introducing the SRV.
First to speak was Tony Wallace, a former councillor and deputy mayor for nine years on both Young and Hilltops Councils until December 2021, who said he was initially a supporter of Council amalgamation for the sole reason he could see some large efficiencies could be created which would lead to some large scale efficiencies and value for ratepayers.
Unfortunately, he said this has not been the case, "largely because people were not in place with knowledge and expertise to affect the change.
"Council's financial position is now at least clear, the way to resolve it however is one that will require some considered and fiscally conservative decision making."
In the broader context he said all levels of government are collecting record amounts of tax, "the avaricious need for more and more government spending knows no bounds."
"Hilltops Council, just like other forms of government is suffering from fiscal ill-discipline rather than any revenue insufficiency, the fiscal slide of Council is the result of poor management. At the extreme end that management has resulted in simply waste on a grand scale," he said quoting a number of examples during his time on Council.
"The most relevant and pressing example at the moment, is this process of consultation - we've gone though 20 public meetings, four meetings of a committee no-one knows anything about and the only new information that's about to come is about 80 per cent, over four years, the increase.
"The waste and excess is incredible.
His previously mentioned efficiencies (from amalgamation) he said have, "most obviously failed in the area of staffing." "As of May 2016 I perceived staff could be reduced by maybe 10 percent by a then figure of 229."
Under that scenario Council could have saved the cost of between 40 and 70 jobs over the last seven and a half years," "amounting to savings of between $3.25m and $5.7m per annum, this is really the crux of Council's problem when one considers staffing levels at other comparable councils" which he said have lower staffing ratios.
He pointed out an SRV would have an immense impact on rural ratepayers, farmers are the minority of ratepayers and yet they pay the majority of rates, exceeding all other classes combined.
"Farm commodity prices are now less than half of what they were 12 months ago and as such farm incomes are less than half.
"Imagine Council staff being told their income was to be less than half but one of their major costs was to be more than double over the next three or four years."
He said it was absurd to think farmers could afford the SRV.
He said in relation to Councils of a similar size in the Hilltops group, if the SRV were adopted, Hilltops would be an "absolute outlier with rates 20 percent higher than any other Council, and rates two and a half times greater than the lowest."
"Not only would we be a laughing stock, it would also act as a significant disincentive to the growth of the area, may in fact lead to a wave of rate default and an exodus of people from the area leaving fewer people to pay rates.
"I urge Council to listen to the community that is here, has been represented in the consultation and listen to the ones who elected them and act decisively," "rejecting an SRV."
Local business woman from Donges Supa IGA, Wendy Silk, spoke against the introduction of an SRV saying from what she is reading the overwhelming majority of residents are not in favour of an SRV.
"The cost of living crisis we are facing is completely overwhelming for people and we are hearing it every day in our business.
She said the cost of living increases are as a result of increased fuel, transport costs, electricity, gas, food prices, child care, rent costs and a rental crisis.
"Another interest rate rise took affect at the beginning of November, taking interest rates to the highest they have been in 12 years, and these are the things that affect your community households."
She said with a massive increase up to 100 per cent over three to four years it would see rates - private, business and farming, "more than double in our region and surely that is not sustainable for people".
"Just doing the math on my own small acreage, receiving no additional services is enough, but to think of those on fixed incomes like pensioners and single parent families or those who rent, who will surely see bigger rent rises to cover their landlord's rate rises - that's inconceivable.
"This would also be true of those smaller businesses in town that rent their shops and will if this SRV goes through, inevitably see these increases passed on my their landlords and drive some of them out of business.
"The impact of this massive SRV will have a lasting affect on our community.
"Families that are already struggling to make ends meet and in a cost of living crisis, where already our charities are seeing an increase in demand, I implore you Councillors to listen to your people and to vote no - thank you."
Local resident, business owner, developer and concerned citizen, Steve Brill, then spoke saying he was one of the hidden few who was on the SRV committee and did conduct three workshops with Hilltops Council staff, "which did enlighten us to the workings of Hilltops Council, but I'm not totally sure it was all the workings given the short period of time we were there."
He said during the workshops and with his business understanding he didn't feel there was compelling evidence for Hilltops Council to apply for a rate variation with IPART.
He said financial reports he had seen over an eight year period had shown a final result, including grants of "predominately positive figures ranging from minus 2.5 to plus 36.5 with the last four years of those being plus 9.2 or better.
"To me this indicates the benefits and frequency of which grants are available to assist Council with funding.
Over the eight years he said grant funds had been significant and of great value to the ratepayers of Hilltops Council.
"Whilst I appreciate it is difficult to budget and reliably predict the grant funding that is available, the figures indicate Hilltops Council has been the beneficiary of those grants, so why not into the future.
"The $6m deficit that's been on average for the last couple of years, in my mind is a small proportion of the $20m depreciation Council has to allocate in expenses each year. As you are all aware depreciation is an expense to provide capital to replace assets, it is not a cash item.
"From my time on this SRV group it has been very apparent Council has a very difficult and complex way depreciation is accounted for and funded, which complicates these discussions. However, we have seen over this eight year period grants play a significant role in ensuring this funding is covered.
Mr Brill indicated the introduction of an SRV and an increase in rates to Hilltops Council when the community is seeing a rise in living costs and a level of service from Council where the community is not entirely happy is not necessary. "I believe other options within Council need to be considered and probably are, they will in turn affect the residents of Hilltops and their back pocket." he said.
Councillor Brian Ingram moved a motion that, "Council not apply to IPART for a Special Rate Variation for year 2024/25.'
He took the opportunity to make mention of all the people who took time to contact Councillors and staff via emails. "I haven't returned emails because I think people sending emails to me were aware of my situation and stance on this matter seeing as I think I kicked it off with a social media post on Friday night about 9 o'clock.
"I listed some items to go in the paper as to why I don't think we should be going ahead with a Special Rate Variation.
- Rising cost of living
- Rising interest rates
- Falling commodity prices
- Community response
- And, the need for Council to look internally
"We've had three speakers who spoke very well on nearly all those matters and the community as a whole are saying it.
"I've spoken to people who normally wouldn't be too affected by the ups and downs of a bit of inflation but even they are telling me now, things are starting to tighten up.
"As a business man myself, I too have noticed a significant rise in my costs, what do I do, in private enterprise I've got to look at making my business more financially viable for my customers and myself.
"Little things I can do in the shearing contracting game, making sure vehicles are full of workers, not three or four vehicles going to a shed costing more money, placing staff where they are best suited whether they be crutching or shearing. Little things that will add up.
"And then being a private enterprise, its a matter of me maybe getting more hands on with my business a bit more often, and then at the end of the day being a director of the business, I take a pay cut.
"That's not reflective to Local Government, its different its private enterprise but the point I'm trying to make is, I'm going to try a number of strategies before I have to raise the costs to my clients.
"Interest rates, the honeymoon is over, we're all aware of that. Zero and low interest rates won't be seen again for a long, long time.
"I'm fortunate again at my stage in life that I haven't got a $500,000 mortgage but I know some young people who have, and not so young people who also have and believe me when they speak to me with the emotion that they speak to me with, its frightening.
"Its not just a financial consideration, its a mental welfare consideration, something I don't want to be part of ever.
He spoke about falling commodity prices for sheep, cattle and wool and the impact on the local economy.
"They're taking a significant hit on the farmland.
"Remember these farmers don't pay $700 or $800 in rates, they pay tens and tens of thousands of dollars, you double that up and its a big number then take in the fact their income is less than half what it was.
"The next thing I had there was the community response, which nearly speaks for itself alright.
The community meetings attended, the dots all on the wall and 71 percent were 'no' or 'don't think so', that's pretty compelling.
"The SRV special committee, there was difference of opinions there. I'd like to thank those people who took the time and effort to be on that committee, whether they were asked by Council or they volunteered. Community input is vital.
"Then I look to Council internally, we need as an organisation to become more efficient, our fiscal management isn't where it should be and that's obvious by the financial results.
"We need try to do more work internally cutting down costs on consultants which currently is enormous.
"Its all about I spose, living within our means, we need to look at funding provided to areas that may have some social benefit but do not return a dollar to Council's coffers.
"The time has come for Council to be responsible with public finances and its not just our Local Government area, I understand that, but we need to strive to be better at how we handle the public's money before we seek an 80 percent SRV, especially in today's conditions.
"So Councillors I would ask that you support me in my notice of motion." He concluded.
In addition to the decision to not proceed with the Special Rate Variation, Councillors moved a motion to focus on various measures for financial improvement, including pursuing additional efficiency improvements, a review of user pay fees, and the investigation of additional/alternate revenue streams. Councillors will receive a report on progress in relation to this bi-monthly.
A statement from Council following the meeting read, "the decision to forgo a Special Rate Variation reflects the Council's commitment to aligning with the community's preferences and ensuring financial responsibility. Council thanks the community members who actively participated in the consultation process, sharing valuable insights that contributed to the decision making process. Hilltops Council remains focused on delivering essential services efficiently, fostering community wellbeing and making decisions that reflect the best interests of its residents. Council looks forward to continued community involvement in shaping the future."